It goes without saying that diet is far from the only thing that drastically changed in our modern times in contrast to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Although diet is the major variable when it comes to health, there certainly is room left for other lifestyle factors to be tweaked in favor of better, simpler and healthier ways.
Wearing shoes is one such thing that seems so natural and second nature, but is very alien to our biology. Some could argue that the mere fact of wearing shoes in contrast to being barefoot can’t have a big impact on our health. When you start to study the complex biomechanics of the foot though, you understand that it’s a very complex and versatile organ that would benefit from being set free.
You see, if we needed shoes to walk or run properly, we would have them already laced-on at birth.
You might think that this Paleo diet and Paleo lifestyle point of view pushes things too far and that shoes are no more than a nice comfort tool like pillows and blankets are. You would be wrong to think that.
The foot is a very complex and sophisticated sensate organ and consistently putting it in this sort of cast (a shoe) can only disrupt and weaken its normal mechanic. Pain in the feet or calves are very frequent and lower back, hip or leg problems often have a direct relation with the feet.
If you think that the soles of our feet are too sensitive and soft and that being barefoot would hurt from all the small objects on the ground, think about all the native cultures that still live barefoot and walk and run on harsh terrains without a problem. The reason why the sole of the foot is so sensitive is to allow us to accurately feel the ground and our surroundings.
Going barefoot is very liberating and instantly puts you in contact with the earth. You’ll feel a deeper connection with it. Just try to remember when you were a child playing outside barefoot and the enjoyment you got from it.
The problem with wearing shoes
First of all, if you wear shoes with heels of any kind, you put your feet in an unusual angle and this puts a strain on your ankles, hamstrings and hips. This often translates to stiff and tight muscles as well as lower back pain.
Wearing regular, flat shoes is not without consequences either. Your toes get all squeezed together and end up being packed in a compressed manner. Our toes are supposed to spread apart and play an active role in our balance and coordination. Wearing shoes makes our toes weaker and makes us lose the very useful power of traction on the ground.
Another problem is that our foot arch gets weaker because it doesn’t have to work that much. This leads to flat feet and all kinds of problems related to them. When you go back to being barefoot all the time, the muscles in your feet will get stronger and your arch will regain its normal strength and vitality.
A lot of people who have to wear orthotics because of flat feet report developing a much stronger arch after returning barefoot for a couple of months.
Over pronation or over supination are issues that come from the fact that, with shoes, our feet don’t land on the ground normally. The foot tends to position itself wrongly when landing because the mechanics of each step you make is slightly off.
Of course, in today’s world, being barefoot all the time isn’t always very practical, especially in a work environment. It could even be outright dangerous if you happen to step on broken glass. For these two problems though, there is a solution.
The Vibram Five Fingers
A couple years ago, Vibram, a company that had been making shoe soles for a long time already, introduced an innovative new product: the Vibram Five Fingers.
These are literally shoes that fit your foot like a glove with a separate pocket for each of your toes. It has a thin and flexible rubber sole to protect you from cuts. The sizes available are also much more elaborate than regular shoes, so you should really be able to find a pair that fits you like a glove, literally.
They also offer a couple of different models like the Classic, the Sprint, the KSO and the Flow. The Classic is the most basic version which leaves the top of your feet bare. The Sprint version adds a Velcro strap making it a better choice for running and swimming. The KSO, or “keep stuff out”, covers your feet with a thin mesh layer, preventing dust and sand from making its way into the shoe. The Flow also covers your whole foot and offers a layer on insulation for colder times. They also recently introduced fancier models like one in Kangaroo hide for example.
I invite you to visit their website for more information where you can either order directly or check the site for a local distributor. The ideal way to find a pair that fits is to try them before hand if you find a local store that sells them. Otherwise, you should also be completely fine if you measure you feet and refer to the chart they have up on their website. All the models are available in a multitude of colors.
People who have a foot longer than the other might have some trouble fitting a pair. If you have a middle toe longer than the big toe, they do have some stretch ability and most people report no problem finding a good pair.
A strong fan base evolved around the Vibram Five Fingers and entire web communities like Birthday Shoes are devoted to it. This cult-like aspect is probably due to the product being so different, liberating, and, in its own way, kind of hip.
Be aware, though, that there is a period of adaptation to wearing the shoes and slowly adapting to them is a good idea. In fact, it’s not really about adaption to the shoes, but more about adapting to being barefoot, since the shoes are nothing more than being barefoot with an extra layer of protection.
I recommend you start wearing them a few hours every day and see how you react to them before wearing them all day long. Of course, some people, me included, are way too excited about them to wear them only part time, but some minimal adaptation pain is to be expected in the beginning.
Here is a nice and short video review of the Vibram Five Fingers:
My experience with being barefoot (with the Vibram Five Fingers)
Once I got my pair of the Sprint model, I started wearing them full time right away. First of all, putting them on can be a hard thing at first. We are just not used to be placing our toes in separate pockets. After a couple of weeks though, it became a no brainer.
It immediately felt very liberating to wear them. It really feels like you walk around with your bare feet. You feel everything on the ground and there is a very tribal sense to it. It felt weird in the beginning to walk “barefoot” in public places.
It feels so natural that I even often forget to take them off when I get in the house. With regular shoes, I’m always in a hurry to get out of them when I can.
You’ll definitely have to put them in the washing machine once in a while, because the odor that develops is quite distinctive. On a very hot day, my feet will sweat in them quite a bit and this is the only time that they become a little less comfortable than really being barefoot. They are easy to clean: throw them in the machine and then let them air dry.
In the first few weeks wearing them, I noticed my feet were a little sore. I attribute it to my feet working in ways they are not used to and, like working out any other muscle, they were getting stronger. Indeed, the soreness went away and I can feel now that my feet are stronger.
It has only been a couple of months now, but already my toes are a little more spread apart. My small toes used to be all jammed up against their neighbor in permanence, but they’re now slowly claiming their own territory.
As a less enjoyable adaptation bout, I started to have sharp heel pain shortly after starting to wear them. I refused to put regular shoes in spite of the pain and it completely went away after a couple of days. I feel no pain whatsoever now.
A curious discovery
I’ve been wearing orthotics in my shoes since I was a child for a supposed ankle deviation. I knew that by wearing the Vibram Five Fingers I would stop wearing my orthotics and put myself at risk of pain by encouraging that deviation. I still wanted to try and see if being barefoot could potentially fix my deviation and flat feet problems.
I really didn’t notice any positive or negative change after going barefoot at first with the Vibrams. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been complaining about tight hamstrings. The problem once became so bad that I also developed knee problems because of it. I sadly had to put on regular shoes with my orthotics recently and my tight hamstring problem came back to haunt me. I now have stopped wearing my orthotics completely and feel better. It will take more time to come to a definitive conclusion, but for now it seems as if my orthotics were doing more harm than good and that being barefoot has helped a bit with my tight hamstrings.
Wearing regular shoes now feels like a real burden and I feel pain in my heels every time I do.
They certainly get noticed and random people often ask me about them. It’s funny to see the look in the face of people as I walk down the streets and they notice my shoes. The extra attention might be intimidating for some, but I personally like to broadcast my difference and rebellion against the status quo and the conventional wisdom. People often ask me if it’s comfortable. “As comfortable as it gets” is my answer!
I would recommend them to just about anybody and I think that the long term benefits will certainly pay off in terms of health and well-being.
Other than regular walking and hiking, barefoot running is another very interesting area to explore. After all, we’ve probably been running for at least as long as we’ve been hunting for food and for the most part it was a barefoot activity. Studies show that early human could sometimes run as fast as today’s best sprinting athletes. Not very surprising considering their diet and lifestyle being the one they were designed for. They were not only strong, lean and healthy, they were also very fast.
In the recent past, some people became famous for running long distance races like marathons without any shoes. It is indeed a common practice in some countries.
Why do we need all this padding after all? To protect ourselves from injury? Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run observed people well in their forties running for miles and miles in certain countries while never getting injured. In our part of the world however, running and injury are synonymous and injury management is part of every runner’s life. This would be very bad news for a hunter-gatherer tribe who depended on their ability to run for food and survival.
I strongly believe that those boats we call running shoes that have more and more padding are not only affecting negatively our speed and performance, but also causing us injury. The more padding, the more injury.
By putting our feet in shoes, they get weaker and weaker, while by leaving them alone they really can do their job.
Instant improvement in the foot strike
When you remove your running shoes and go for a run barefoot, you almost instantly regain your natural strike.
You see, when you wear shoes, the natural tendency to land on the front of the foot is changed and you suddenly start landing on the heel. Landing on the heels is a major performance inhibitor and could lead to some serious injuries.
When you land on the forefront of the foot, there is a springing motion that absorbs the shock and gives you momentum for your next strike. It all becomes a very coordinated and integrated movement.
On the opposite side, when you heel strike, every time your foot touches the ground the movement completely stops and you receive the pressure of up to three times your body weight on your heel. You can then understand why so many runners get injured over the long run (pun intended, of course).
To better illustrate this, watch this short video with Daniel Lieberman, who explains about the natural running strike and how to regain it by going barefoot:
Barefoot running is now really picking up and groups have formed in almost all major cities to meet-up, exchange and run barefoot together.
Some even decide to go completely barefoot without the added protection of minimal shoes like the Vibram Five Fingers. Those people will tell you that as long as you stay vigilant and use your eyes and brain, everything should be fine.
Like transitioning to being barefoot in your day to day life, a transition to barefoot running should be taken slowly and gradually to avoid pain and to let the feet get used to the different movement and get stronger. Start by doing a short barefoot run and increase your barefoot mileage gradually while gauging your comfort level.
After seeing some of the theory behind why our bodies are better adapted to being barefoot, I truly hope you’ll give the barefoot lifestyle a try. Your feet, ankles, legs, hips and back will thank you.